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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Death of Antony Flew

Antony Flew, died a few days ago, aged 87. Flew was a leading philosophical atheist for most of his career, though he switched to a form of deism in the past few years.

He has been much reviled for this, although deism in itself is often a progressive position and it has the merit that it can't be disproved. Historically, many of the American Founding Fathers were deists, as were most of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. It's possible that Hume and Mill were deists, though it's very difficult to sort out Hume's true position.

These days, of course, the motivation for hanging onto a minimalist god, such as that of deism, seems rather thin, and Flew's own reasoning seems to have been of the "God of the gaps" variety: he could not believe that purely natural causes were sufficient to explain the origins of life. Well, it's true that we don't have an intellectually compelling theory of abiogenesis, but there are many things that we now understand pretty well, though they once defied our efforts. Explanatory gaps tend to close, though (perhaps fortunately) more questions tend to open up.

Perhaps more worryingly than his eventual profession of deism, Flew came to embrace extremely right-wing political positions. Even here, he initially had a point in his criticism of doctrinaire forms of political egalitarianism (all doctrinaire theories of morality or political action have their problems). But he moved far beyond reasonable critique of the grounding for egalitarianism to substantively hard-line and intolerant views on issues of the day.

His best work was done when he was young, but he will still be remembered as a great contributor to British philosophy in the second half of last century.

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